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Social media use and young adult mental health
NIHR Three School's workshop 
May 2022

On 16th May 2022 we conducted a workshop about social media use and young adult mental health funded by the NIHR Three Schools Mental Health Programme. We focused on young adults aged 16-25 years.

The online workshop was hosted by the Primary Care and Population Health Department at UCL. A total of 27 people attended, including representatives from charities (e.g., McPin, Mental Health Foundation), young adults with lived experiences, parents and educators, healthcare professionals, students, and researchers with backgrounds in public health, social care and primary care research. 

What were the aims of the workshop?

We aimed to:

a) learn about research on social media use and young people’s mental health;

b) share ideas and discuss future research questions;

c) build our networks.

Why was this topic chosen?

Mental health in young adults is as a real concern. Young people’s mental health problems are increasing over time and GPs are looking after and/or referring more young people to mental health services, mostly with long waiting times.

Many newspaper articles have reported on how social media use is related to mental health problems. The articles call for the need to address the emerging ‘social media’ epidemic, as social media use is becoming ubiquitous among young people and has increased during the Covid-19 pandemic. As a GP (PS), I have seen a recent increase of young adults with mental health problems, with many reporting social media as a cause or a contributing factor.

What is the evidence base?

There are benefits to using social media, as it can improve social support, strengthen bonds, and reduce loneliness. On the other hand, social media use is related to feelings of depression and anxiety in young adults, but there is limited evidence to suggest social media itself causes these issues.

We had the privilege to welcome Dr Lizzy Winstone and Dr Lucy Biddle from the University of Bristol to present at the workshop. Lizzy discussed her research that found that the effects of social media on mental health differ depending on how we use it and how long we use it for. Lucy discussed ideas and challenges around developing guidelines to assist mental health practitioners to talk to young people about online activities. Some guidelines on social media use exist but they are general, hard to apply, and not tailored towards different healthcare professions, such as GPs.  

What did we do in the workshop?

In groups we discussed two key areas of research:

  1. How can we improve social media campaigns to help young adults access mental health services/information? (Padlet questions 1 & 2)
  2. How can we improve primary care experiences for young adults who seek help for mental health issues that might be related to social media use? (Padlet questions 3 & 4)

Screenshot of padlet discussion Padlet discussion

Key messages from discussion of the first set of questions:

  • Reach
    • Social media could reach people who are unsure about seeking help. 
    • Not all young adults have access to social media: we need to be careful not to widen health inequalities.  
  • Support
    • Signposting towards resources and advice on where to seek help.
    • Empowering young adults by providing information.
  • Content of campaigns
    • Delivered by key influencers or young adults with lived experience. 
    • Balance between normalising and glamourising mental health problems.

Key messages from discussion of the second set of questions:

  • What should primary care clinicians ask young adults and how?
    • Be open minded and non-judgmental: Ask about whether a young adult is using social media, what makes them feel good or bad about using it.
    • Questions about social media use need to be incorporated dynamically into the consultation rather than delivering a ‘screening’ question.
  • Who should ask it?
    • Anyone in the community healthcare team who has contact with young adults with mental health problems
    • Time constraints: Follow-up consultations may be required with the GP and/or other professionals, such as social prescribers.
    • Schools and community groups could provide more support.
  • Further support for young adults
    • What are the best resources that GPs can signpost to? 
    • Provide advice about managing privacy settings. 
  • Training for clinicians
    • Practical and tailored guidance is needed on how to discuss social media use with young adults. 
    • Training in social media literacy is needed.

What's next?

As a result of the workshop, we have connected with researchers, charities, young adults with lived experience and clinicians across the country. We are applying for further funding to explore what guidance and training we can develop and provide to primary care clinicians for them to support young adults with mental health concerns.

The workshop was a rewarding experience and it helped us to understand these issues from different perspectives. Our attendees provided positive feedback, and many requested to stay involved with the research.

“Eye opening workshop! very tricky issues, great to talk about them thank you”

Ruth will lead on this research going forward as part of her NIHR Three Schools’ Mental Health Fellowship and Ruth & Patricia plan to apply for further funds.

About the authors

Dr Patricia Schartau (GP at Hampstead Group Practice; Academic Clinical Lecturer in Primary Care at the UCL Department of Primary Care and Population Health) Email: Twitter: @DrPatriciaES

Dr Ruth Plackett (NIHR Three schools’ Mental Health Programme Fellow at the UCL Department of Primary Care and Population Health) Email: Twitter: @ruthplackett